Wednesday, November 30, 2016


By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

The truth is…we all die.

How’s that for an opening line?

Well, today I am going to talk about death from a historical perspective; in particular, how people dealt with death in the past. What customs or expectations were not only observed but "required" of people by society?

Throughout history, people have dealt with grief in many different ways. Often in historical novels, we get a glimpse or sketchy reference as to how people processed death through Mourning practices. So, to satisfy my writer's curiosity, I wanted more detailed information. From wearing black to remembering a loved one through art work, today's post is about how people in the 19th century accepted death and found strength to move on.

The sad fact is that during the 19th century, the sudden loss of a loved one was the norm rather than the rarity of dying old in your bed. Infant mortality was so high that many people would not even name their baby until the child was 1-2 years of age. Many women died during childbirth. Illnesses that are treatable today would claim the life of young and old. Influenza, pneumonia, consumption (TB), dysentery from tainted water, and even an infection caused by a cut could mean death.

Despite religious beliefs which brought words of comfort and the promise of a Heavenly reunion one day with their departed loved ones, there were society expectations and many superstitions associated with death that prevailed in the 19th century. And whether we know it or not, some of the mourning customs associated with superstitions are still followed today.

Customs associated with Mourning:

1) Immediately after someone died, the ritual of covering mirrors is implemented. ALL the mirrors, or any reflective glass surface, in the house were covered. Why? Based on superstition, the deceased soul might see their reflection in the mirror and become trapped which would then make them become a ghost haunting the earth.

2) If there is a clock, the motion of the clock is stopped; this gives the family the exact time of death. In many instances where the death occurred at home without a physician present, the time of death was necessary for documentation. Makes sense, right?

However, one superstition about this practice was that if you do not stop the clock, the soul of the deceased will linger and become a ghost or trapped spirit.

Another superstition attached to this custom is that if one did not stop the clock, the family of the house would have bad luck.

Whatever the reason for stopping the clock, it would not be restarted until the funeral and burial had concluded.

3) Often the viewing (and sometimes the funeral itself) was held in the home before being taken to the cemetery for burial. In rural communities, families often had burial plots on their property.

4) Whether the funeral took place in the home or not, the home was also prepared in accordance with customs.

The exterior of the home must indicate to neighbors and the public at large that the household was in mourning. Black crepe wreaths with black ribbons were placed on the front door, or adorned the door knob. If an infant had died, the color of the crepe and ribbons was white.

5) Inside the home, especially if the wake or funeral took place there, customs were also followed. The casket of the deceased was often placed in the parlor.

My mother once told me that when her beloved grandfather died, his casket was placed in her childhood home before being transported to the church and cemetery for burial. She remembered vividly, despite her young age, that when she came down on the morning of the funeral, the house was unusually quiet. She was then sent to her aunt’s house (two doors down) to join her little cousins. However, she noted a casket was now in the parlor and that black crepe had been placed on the mantle, windows, and doors. Paintings (art work) were also covered with black crepe.

6) When removing the deceased loved one’s body from the house, it must be carried out feet first. The superstition associated with this practice was that if the deceased was carried out head first, he/she might look back and beckon someone living to join them.

7) Perhaps the most stringent custom with regard to Mourning was that of clothing. Somber mourning attire dates back to the 1600s.

During the early to mid-1800s, mourning the death of a loved one had become associated with the observance of strict guidelines and even art forms.

Books were published on the subject. When her beloved Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into a very strict and lengthy Deep Mourning, and essentially inspired what is considered the Victorian period of mourning that her subjects and people in the United States also adopted.

8) It should be noted that the War Between The States in America had also begun at this time, and it seemed death surrounded the populace on both sides of the Civil War. Rare was the family spared the death of a loved one – be it father, husband, brother, son, cousin, etc. In the state of Alabama alone, there were 80,000 widows mourning the death of a loved one.

9) Formal black mourning clothes were ONLY worn by the immediate family. This attire included undergarments as well as accessories such as gloves, hats, handkerchiefs, jewelry, and even a ladies’ parasol. [Pictured: 1865 photo showing ruins of Richmond, Virginia, with women in Full Mourning attire on the lower right side. Courtesy: US National Archives]

Non-immediate family members (men, women, and children) observed mourning by wearing a black arm band for the required amount of time, or a black cockade (badge) pinned to their clothing.

10) In addition to the formal black clothing, women had to wear a veil in public. Ostensibly, the veil provided a protective barrier whereby the grief-stricken face, swollen eyes, or pale countenance of the bereaved lady could remain private.

However, it was also believed that the spirits of the deceased would linger around a loved one. Thus, if someone were to look upon the face of the lady in mourning, the spirit of the deceased might attach itself to the innocent bystander. Therefore, the black veil pinned to a widow’s bonnet was also a means to protect anyone else from this superstition being true.

11) Since mourning clothes were timely to make, and death could happen so suddenly, mourning clothes were readily available ‘off-the-rack’ for purchase. In fact, mourning clothing was the first ‘off-the-rack’ clothing for purchase.

One must remember that most people made their own clothing at this time. Those who were more affluent and could afford to have clothing made by a professional dressmaker, would also have mourning attire made and ready in their wardrobe, if necessary.

12) For many people, buying mourning clothes ‘off-the-rack’ was not affordable. As such, women would take clothing they already had and put them in a large cast iron pot with black dye. This laborious task had to be performed outside since the odors of the dye were quite strong and taint the air within the home. Another option for those who could not afford ‘off-the-rack’ mourning clothing, but did not want to dye the clothing themselves, would bring their clothing to a merchant to do the necessary deed.

13) A rather macabre custom during the 19th century were coffin bells.

The fear of being proclaimed dead when one was actually alive proved such an alarming concern that even George Washington asked his manservant to sit with him for three days to make sure he was dead before proceeding with the funeral.

Almost 100 years later, Mary Todd Lincoln had the same fear and left hand-written instructions regarding her funeral, which included the following statement. “I desire that my body shall remain for two days with the lid not screwed down.” So, how exactly did this bell method work? A bell was attached to the headstone. A chain then went directly from the bell down into the coffin and attached on a ring placed on the deceased’s finger. (See attached illustration.)

14) There are three different stages of mourning, especially for women. The stages include: Deep Mourning, Second Mourning, and Half Mourning.

Deep Mourning immediately followed the death of a husband/wife, parent, or child. Clothing must be solid black, including one’s jewelry. As stated above, ladies must wear bonnets covered with black crepe with a long, black veil attached. Hats were never worn. During this period, a lady in Deep Mourning would not speak to anyone outside her family. Neither would she attend any party or gathering, including weddings. Deep Mourning must last a minimum of one year plus a day. Some women, like Queen Victoria, remained in Deep Mourning for the remainder of their lives.

Second Mourning began immediately following Deep Mourning, and would last a minimum of 9 months to 12 months. The traditional black veil formerly draped over a ladies’ face was pinned back, and the veil itself could now be half the length it had been in Deep Mourning. Women could also add black lace to embellish their clothing. In addition, the collar and cuffs of clothing could now be white. Ladies could also send out announcements that their period of Deep Mourning had ended and she could now receive visitors. However, she still could NOT attend parties, weddings, or social gatherings.

Half Mourning involved the last six months of one's Mourning period. No longer limited to wearing only black, colors such as lavender, mauve, violet, and gray were used. In addition, a lady no longer had to use the color white for just her collar and cuffs. She could now wear a combination of black and white evening dresses. Bonnets were lavender silk, straw, or white.

15) One of the most confusing requirements regarding Mourning, especially during the 19th century, was the requisite time period expected for people. The socially acceptable period of Mourning was different for various family members, but each relation had a minimum amount of time that must be observed. Any family member NOT observing their required time of Mourning would subject the entire family to scandal. The time period for different family relations is as follows:

Spouse of Deceased: One Year Minimum although 2-1/2 Years was Traditional.
Parent of Deceased: Six Months to One Year.
Children 10 & Older: Six Months to One Year.
Children Under 10: Three to Six Months.
Infants: Six Weeks and Up
Siblings: Six to Eight Months.
Aunts & Uncles Related By Blood: Three to Six Months.
Aunts & Uncles Related By Marriage: Six Weeks to Three Months.
Grandparents: Six Months
Distant Relations & Friends: Three Weeks

16) The Mourning period for men had more flexibility, primarily because they were the providers for their families. Their attire include a dark suit, with a dark strip (usually made of crepe) wrapped around the band of their hat.

Black arm bands were worn as well, and often a black cockade [pictured] was pinned to his lapel.

Although it seems excessive that a woman was expected to follow the three periods of Mourning, men often needed to remarry quickly out of need for someone to care for their home and any children left motherless.

It should be noted that if the husband should remarry not long after his wife had been buried, the new wife could mourn her predecessor in her husband’s stead, gong through the three periods of Mourning out of respect for the departed woman.

17) One custom that may seem somewhat bizarre was the practice of using hair from a deceased loved one to make a framed, often elaborate, memorial piece of artwork. Yet when one thinks how mothers preserve a lock of their baby’s hair in a diary, bible, or baby book; or how for centuries a lock of hair was treasured as a romantic keepsake between couples during their courtship, it seems a natural progression that someone would think to make an artistic tribute to their loved one in such a manner.

Hair cuttings or strands of hair left in a hairbrush were sentimentally used to make brooches, watch fobs, rings, bracelets, or placed carefully inside a locket. Magazines during the 19th century often included articles instructing how to make hair wreaths, a traditional mourning custom during the Victorian period.

The hair wreath was the more traditional remembrance and could be made using the hair from one family member, or using locks of hair from several family members that have been preserved and added to as time passed. Framed in glass, these hair wreaths were treasured, sentimental keepsake remembrances that often told the family history using hair art.

18) Another art form used to mourn passing family members of love one was quilting. Very often, especially in pioneer America where families moved often, often by covered wagon, the grave site for loved ones was in another place – one that perhaps would be forgotten as generations passed. Determined to create a record of where her loved ones were buried, in 1836, Elizabeth Rosemary Mitchell began stitching a quilt in memory of her 2-year old son who had just died. The simple first square was of a cemetery with the embroidered casket for her little boy. In 1843, she added another son who died at the age of 19.

Known as The Graveyard Quilt, Mrs. Mitchell used what materials she had and a talent she possessed to remember her deceased children and also document the family’s history. Her quilt has since become a genealogical and historical artifact.

Losing a loved one is never easy, and the grieving of that loss takes time.

Everyone deals with mourning the death of loved ones in their own way. Whether it is a quilt, a framed mourning hair wreath, visiting the final resting place of a loved one on their birthday, or looking at old letters and photographs, it is how we remember those we love that not only endures but gives us strength to continue on for them, and to share the history of their life with others.

I hope you enjoyed this unusual post. Hopefully, you did not find it depressing but interesting and/or informative. Very often, especially as a writer (and reader) of historical fiction, knowing the customs associated with so inevitable a subject as death, helps bring not only accuracy but understanding to the reader and to the traditions we may still observe today. ~ AKB


On the Duties of Consolation, and the Rites and Customs Appropriate to Mourning, A.E. Miller (1829)

The American Victorian Woman: The Myth and the Reality, Mabel Collins Donnelly (1986)

Victorian Rights of Passage: Death Rituals, Elizabeth Kelly Kerstens, Ancestry Magazine (September/October 1999; Vol. 17 No. 5)


  1. Ashley--I'm commenting right now to check the requirements.

    1. It's as I explained in the email..choose an ID and hit publish.

  2. Ashley, thank you so much for an in-depth and well-researched article that I did not find depressing, but interesting and even admirable for families to go to such extents to honor their love ones' death. Mrs. Mitchell's quilt reminded me of a quilt I still have which my grandmother stitched by hand. Although not made because of a death, still it means so much to me now that she's passed on. A wonderful seamstress, the squares are from school clothes she had sewn for me.

    1. Thank you, Cheri. I have such admiration for quilts, especially heirlooms that were hand-stitched. My mom often spoke of watching her grandmother, mother, and aunts gathered about a big wooden frame and hand sewing quilts for the family. Like you, she recognized old school dresses and fabric that once had been the kitchen curtains. I can well inagine the happiness that having the quilt your grandmother made brings you. A true treasure. Glad you enjoyed the post today.

  3. Not depressing at all, Ashley, but interesting. As for the cemetery bell, my dad knew a man who was thought dead and dug himself out of his grave. Apparently, he had been in a coma and recovered enough to escape.

    1. Eerie. But it happened enough that people were terrified about it happening to one of them. In fact, it happened to Robert E. Lee's mother. Here is the little known story about how Robert E. Lee was born a year after his mother 'died'...or so they thought at the time.

      General Lee’s mother was by not means an entirely healthy woman, and the physician at Stratford, Virginia, the home of Henry Lee (Light Horse Harry) was kept in constant attendance. Mrs. Lee suffered from catalepsy and during a long trance she was pronounced dead. The body was prepared for interment, and the morning of the third day after her supposed death, the remains were laid in the family vault, in the graveyard in that pretty little Virginia village.

      Members of the family made frequent visits to the vault, and while the sexton was cleaning up and arranging some flowers to be placed on the casket, he heard a faint voice as though of some one calling for assistance. Of course, the old man was somewhat alarmed, but as he had seen many years of service in the “city of the dead,” he did not leave the vault. He listened closely and the voice was distinctly heard again. Becoming satisfied that the voice came from within the casket, he at once set to work and opened it, discovering that Mrs. Lee was alive. Releasing the poor woman from her awful fate, assistance was soon summoned and within a short time she was safe in bed at her home.

      Mrs. Lee’s recovery was slow but she did regain good health, and a little more than a year after she was buried alive, her youngest son, Robert E. Lee, was born, and thus came into the world one of her bravest men. Source: Mannsville News.

    2. Good Heavens! Another tidbit of strange & amazing history. Thanks again, Ashley!

  4. Thanks for sharing. I used the history of the wreaths in one of my books.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Linda. I once read that in London they would put straw down on the cobblestones to buffer the sound of carriages in front of houses in mourning. The wreath on the door told the public of the sorrow in the house, and made it possible for people to be more respectful, I think.

  5. I think it was helpful for loved ones of the deceased to have these rituals and traditions in order to move forward with their lives in an orderly way. It's a whole lot better than swallowing your grief and going back to work after only 3 days of grief provided by employers. Considerations for a person in mourning can be very comforting. I like the locket of hair in a mourning locket. Wonderfully informative blog Ashley.

    1. Thank you, Sarah J. I agree that affording people the time and consideration to mourn a loved one, as well as deal with legal issues and family needs, is very important.


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